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Bread price hike stirs struggle in Egypt

Published Mar 30, 2008 11:28 PM

A spike in the price of wheat flour as February ended has led both to an increase in hunger and to a series of sharp workers’ struggles in Egypt, as well as attempts by the government to make concessions.

The vast majority of Egyptians depend on bread for 70 percent of their calories and protein, and some reports say more bread is eaten per person in Egypt than in any other country. Since the price leap, bread lines in the poor neighborhoods of Egypt have grown ever longer and more contentious. Al-Jazeera Television on March 12 reported that some people were waiting seven hours or more for their ration and that at least 10 people had died on breadlines in the first two weeks of March.

The Egyptian government will spend nearly $2.6 billion this year on subsidizing bread and cooking oil, but it admits that a lot—as much as 40 percent—of the bread production destined for the poor is being diverted to the private market.

Doctors held a two-hour protest March 15 over their low salaries—averaging $50 a month—which the jump in the price of bread made it harder for them to accept. What was notable about this strike is that the doctors’ union is led by a Christian woman. (Coptic Christians make up about 15 percent of Egypt’s population.)

Textile workers, who held a series of very successful strikes last year, have said that they will go out in early April to demand immediate wage hikes that will compensate them for the increased cost of bread. There have been a number of actions at individual textile plants already.

Ever since the 1978 Camp David meeting, Egypt, with its 76.2 million people, has been the United States’ most important client state in the Arab world. Egypt has gotten billions in military aid and in the 1970s and 1980s also got substantial economic support. Currently it has a 10-year military aid commitment from the U.S. worth a total of $13 billion.

In return for this substantial aid, Egypt protects Israel’s western flank and safeguards U.S. access to key transportation arteries, like the Suez Canal. Some 861 U.S. ships got expedited passage through the canal from 2001 to 2005, and Egypt allowed 36,553 overflights by U.S. combat aircraft during the same period. (Middle East Report, Spring 2008)

The neoliberal restructuring that the U.S. imposed on Egypt, along with its military aid, began paying off last year for the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The World Bank ranked Egypt as the most improved investment economy in the world and Egyptian companies’ profits and opportunities soared.

Similarly, the Egyptian bourgeoisie has been able to use its U.S.-empowered army and repressive forces to disrupt its internal opponents like the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the Egyptian workers and poor, the vast majority of the country, have been left holding a bag that is mostly empty except for promises for a future paradise. Unemployment is down, but almost all the new jobs are in the service sector with no benefits and no stability. Housing is booming for the wealthy and in short supply for anybody else. Education and health care are also in sharp decline.

But people will struggle if they can’t get enough to eat, and right now that is the overriding issue in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has called on the army to use its own ovens to bake bread to feed the people. Given the continued upward pressure on the worldwide price of food, it is not clear how long this army campaign can last.